by Mark J. Brelsford
I would like to share with all the folks out there some of my reflections on spending New Years on Okinawa with Master Uechi. Master Uechi, as it is well know, was an extremely kind and gentle human being in many aspects. One thing that I will always treasure is the time that I was able to spend sharing the holiday’s season with Master Uechi and his family, while I was a student at the Futenma dojo.
As a United States Marine stationed in Okinawa during the early 1980’s, the holiday times are usually the hardest times of the year to be alone from one’s family. For the of the younger, less traveled service man and women the holidays can be a time of extreme loneliness and depression. The time when reflections of one’s family, and the distance separating loved ones can be difficult. I really believed that Master Uechi truly understood how lonely this time of year was for the foreign students that would be training at his dojo.
For those who do not know, on Okinawa NewYears is the biggest and busiest time of the year. A time when the family is the most important and the exchange of greeting and gifts is at there highest. It is also a time of celebration both at home, work and the dojo. Every New Years eve we would hold our New Years eve workout, a kind of out with the old in with the new, training session. A sought of a rededication of oneself to ones training and an overall boost to ones martial spirit. We would all perform our Sanchins both as a group and then one by one for Master Uechi. This would be followed by a typical workout to include body conditioning as well as the kata. Each performed with all the power, speed and form on could muster for the last work out of the year. We would then clean the dojo from top to bottom. Then just before midnight, the entire dojo, to include all the children who where at the training session would file outside and form a huge line of pairs. Then Master Uechi along with his wife would fire off a starters pistol, like the ones used at races, and off we would all go jogging down the streets in pairs, perhaps 20 pairs long!
Our final destination being the Futenma Shrine about a quarter of a mile from the dojo. It was a brisk little jog, dodging the crowds and the cars, all the time keeping a watchful eye on the children some as young as five jogging along with us. Once arriving at the temple, we would attempt to get as close to the entrance as we all could. This would be a little difficult due to the fact that the Futenma temple is one of the major shrines on Okinawa. Hundreds of people would be lined up to visit the temple and usher in the New Year also. What a site we must have been, the crowds would cheer us on as we would line up at the entrance, face the main building, assume our best horse stance and perform three punches. These punches would end with the loudest Kiai we could all muster! We would then clap our hands twice, bow and off we would all go back to the dojo. We would all be laughing and cheering all the way back to the dojo.
Once back at the dojo, we would all be treated to tangerines, which all the children would play with, and a huge pot of sweet bean soup (a traditional Okinawan New Year Food). Greeting would be exchanged, more treats for the children would appear, and finally a round of beer would appear for the adults. Once this was done and all the children parents picked their child up, the adults would slip off to a small neighborhood snack for more refreshments. The New years would be here!
That same day, Master Uechi would invite all the foreign students to his home, located above the dojo for a huge traditional Okinawan feast. Students would be there from the states, perhaps Argentina, England and any other country that might be at the dojo training this time of year. The food would include all the favorite of the holiday season, special Holiday rice, rich green tea, bean paste soup, sushi, and of course the rich and tasty Okinawan soba soup with lots of pork and green onions on the side! Master Uechi would then share with us all the information we could absorb and host our ever question about Uechi Karate. Explaining with a gleam in his eye as he talked about the early years of training and of course his beloved father the great Kanbun Uechi. We would all be in awe as he told us all these stories.
Finally it would be time to say good night, these parties would extend well into the evening. We would all say our good-byes, photos would be taken and home we would all go. Master Uechi would wave to us as we departed from his roof top along with his wife. I would then return to my barracks on base, knowing I just shared something that I would never forget and always treasure.